Pluralistic: Monopoly's event-horizon (05 Dec 2022)

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A NASA rendering entitled 'Neutron Stars Rip Each Other Apart to Form Black Hole,' pictured as a Fibonacci spiral of glowing red lines on black background. Superimposed over this is an image of Monopoly's 'Rich Uncle Pennybags,' clutching a Grim Reaper's scythe rather than a cane, his face a skull. The lower half of his body has been stretched and is disappearing into the black hole at the center of the NASA image. He is limned with red and orange and sports a red/orange comet-tail.

Monopoly's event-horizon (permalink)

When a superdense, concentrated mass forms a black hole, the laws of physics around it change, giving rise to an eldritch zone where the normal rules don't apply. When corporations form a concentrated industry, the laws of economics likewise change.

Take copyright: when I was a baby writer, there were dozens of comparably sized New York publishers. The writers who mentored me could shop their rights around to lots of houses, which enabled them to subdivide those rights.

For example, they could separately sell paperback and hardcover rights, getting paid twice for the same book. Under those circumstances, giving authors broader copyrights and easier enforcement systems could directly translate into more groceries on those authors' tables and more gas in their cars' tanks.

But today, publishing has dwindled to five giant houses (possibly four soon, depending on whether Penguin Random House successfully appeals its blocked merger with Simon and Schuster). Under these conditions, giving exploited authors more copyright is like giving bullied schoolkids more lunch-money.

Whatever copyright authors get will be non-negotiably extracted from them via the near-identical, unviolable core contracting terms from the Big Five publisher. Today, the bullies don't just take your paperback rights, they also acquire your audio and ebook rights.

Most of them now want your worldwide English rights, so you can't resell the book in the Commonwealth, and some have started demanding graphic novel, film and TV rights.

In our new book, Rebecca Giblin and I call this "chokepoint capitalism". In today's highly concentrated creative labor markets, copyright's normal role of giving creators bargaining leverage over their supply chain is transformed.

Instead of being a tool for creators, copyright is inevitably transferred to part of the supply chain – a publisher, label, streamer, ebook retailers, etc – where it becomes a tool to beat up on the rest of the supply chain, especially creators.

But copyright isn't the only policy that breaks down at the event horizon of monopoly's black hole. Policy itself breaks down, too. When power is pluralized among lots of firms an expert regulator can ask a technical question like "Does net neutrality lead to a decrease in private infrastructure investment?" and get lots of answers.

Some companies – cable operators hoping to override your choices about which data you want by slowing down traffic from sites unless they pay bribes – will insist that they can't afford to build fiber without this incentive.

Others – ISPs who want to raid the cable operators' customer base by giving you the data you request as fast as they can – will answer this charge. Both will provide supposedly empirical about their investment choices and capital and running costs, and both will vigorously probe the others' submissions for factual weaknesses.

But when all the internet in your country has been monopolized so that nearly all Americans have little or no choice of ISP, the truth-seeking exercise of regulation becomes an auction, with the monopolists bidding together to bend reality (or regulation) to their will:

This is called "regulatory capture": when there are four or five companies running an industry, nearly everyone qualified to understand it is an executive at one of those companies. Obama's "good" FCC chair was a cable lobbyist, Trump's "bad" chair was a Verizon lawyer.

Ironically, the term "regulatory capture" originated with right-wing, anti-regulation nihilists. They argued that capture was inevitable and the only way to preserve competition was to eliminate all regulation, including the regulation that blocked monopoly formation.

Eliminating anti-monopoly rules had the entirely predictable effect of producing lots of monopolies. Today, nearly every global industry – beer, shipping, banking, athletic shoes, concert tickets, eyeglasses, etc – is dominated by a handful of firms:

Today, the same people who advocated for removing anti-monopoly rules in every administration since Reagan's insist that their deregulation has nothing to do with the growth of monopolies – that these monopolies arise out of some mysterious force of history: when it's monopoly time, you get monopolies.

This is a wild thing to say aloud among reasonably intelligent adults, like claiming, "Well, when we put out rat poison, we didn't have a rat problem. We stopped, and now we're overrun by rats. But it would be hasty to assume that removing the rat poison led to the explosion of rats (by the way, does anyone have a cure for the plague?)"

But if you haven't paid close attention to the history of antitrust law since the late 1970s, all of this might feel mysterious to you – or worse, you might mistake the cause for the effect: regulators keep making corrupt choices, so regulation itself is impossible.

This is like the artists' rights advocate who says, "artists' incomes keep falling, so we need more copyright" – in mistaking the effect for the cause, both blame the system, rather than the corporate power that has corrupted it.

The same is true in our online "censorship" "debate," which poses the issue of speech online as one of "which speech rules should the Big Tech companies that have transformed the internet into five giant websites filled with screenshots of the other four adopt?"

Good communities need good rules, sure – but by focusing on which rules we have, rather than what keeps people stuck in social media silos that have manifestly bad rules, we miss the point. Absenting yourself from the major social media platforms and online messaging tools extracts major costs on your personal, professional, educational and civil life, so many of us stay within those silos, even though every day we spend there is a torment.

The focus on penalizing firms with bad rules is another one of those mistaking-the-cause-for-the-effect-and-making-it-worse phenomena. A fine-grained, high-stakes duty to moderate makes it effectively impossible for small platforms – say, community-owned co-ops – to offer an alternative to Big Tech.

And once Big Tech platforms have a duty to police their users, they can argue, reasonably enough, that they can't also be forced to interoperate with other platforms whose users they can't spy on and thus can't control.

The case that bad community managers give rise to toxic communities breaks down under conditions of monopoly, since attempts to improve platforms with billions of users are a) doomed (there is no three-ring binder big enough to encompass all the rules for three billion users) and b) inimical to standing up smaller, easier-to-administer communities.

Monopoly's singularity also applies to free software and open source. In the mid-1980s, Richard Stallman coined the term "free software" to apply to software that respected your freedom, specifically, the freedom to inspect, improve and redistribute it.

These were considered the necessary preconditions for freedom in a digital world. Without a guaranteed right to inspect the code that you relied on and correct the defects you found in it, you were a prisoner to the errors or ill intentions of the software's original author.

In 1998, another name was proposed for software licensed on "free" terms: "open source." Nominally, this term was intended to resolve the ambiguity between "free as in beer" and "free as in speech" – that is, to make it clear that "free software" didn't mean "noncommercial software."

This was said to be necessary to resolve the fears of commercial firms that had been frightened away from free software due to a misunderstanding. As part of this shift, advocates for "open source" shifted their emphasis from free software's ethical proposition ("software that gives you freedom") to an instrumental narrative.

Open source software was claimed to be higher quality than proprietary software, because it hewed to the Enlightenment values of transparency, replicability and peer review ("with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow").

Along with this claim, there was a second argument that open source software was cheaper to develop because a "community" would gather to help maintain it. Sometimes, this was couched as a "commons" where lots of actors, large and small, would work to produce a community good.

In 2018 Benjamin "Mako" Hill delivered a keynote to the Libreplanet conference that was a kind of postmortem to the 20-year experiment in instrumentalism (open source) over ethics (free software):

Mako concluded that the experiment was a failure, producing a situation in which the tech giants enjoyed unlimited software freedom (because they ran the cloud servers we all depended on) while the rest of us merely had open source (the right to inspect the software powering the cloud, and to suggest ways to modify it).

In this account, the shift from ethics to instrumentalism paved the way for a series of compromises that turned the commons into a sharecropper's precarious farmstead. When the open community was asked whether cloud software should be subjected to the same copyleft terms as software distributed for users, they weighed this as an instrumental proposition ("will this make the software better"), not an ethical one ("will this give users more freedom?"), and concluded that the answer was "this is fine."

I think there's a lot to this explanation – if nothing else, it explains how such a drastic shift took place without much hue and cry. But there's another phenomenon at work that Mako's account doesn't grapple with: the rise of tech monopolies.

The reason that ethical propositions related to software freedom were sidelined so effectively in the decades after 1998 is the increasing power of tech monopolies: as tech giants gobbled up their competitors or put them out of business with predatory pricing, they gained power over regulators, universities, and individual technologists (increasingly employed by or dependent on a tech giant).

Copyleft – like copyright – breaks down at the event horizon of concentrated corporate power. With copyright, the breakdown manifests as the appropriation of copyright's "power to exclude" by the firms it was supposed to be wielded against. With copyleft, it manifests as "software freedom" being hoarded by the same firms that copyleft licenses were supposed to keep in check.

This phenomenon isn't limited to free software – it also plagues open-licensed "content" – material released under Creative Commons licenses, say. A year ago, Paul Keller and Alek Tarkowski published an important essay on "openness" entitled "The Paradox of Open":

In this essay, the authors – both significant contributors to the world of free software and open content – identify a phenomenon akin to the Mako's observation of "freedom for big companies, openness for the rest of us." From Openstreetmap to CC-licensed creative works, corporate monopolies have supercharged their power by plundering the commons.

This month, Open Future, who published "Paradox," published a series of responses to the original paper:

They are uniformly excellent, but the one that I am most interested in comes from James Boyle, "Misunderestimating Openness":

Here, Boyle sharply disagrees with Keller and Tarkowski's argument, grouping it with similar claims about content moderation and censorship, arguing that openness was only ever a necessary – but insufficient – precondition for a better world. In the same way, online speech forums might be terrible places, but this is a failure of their moderators and their communities and their business-models, not an indictment of the idea of online discourse itself.

Both papers grapple with concentrated corporate power as a corrupting force, but neither puts it in the center of the breakdown of otherwise sound practices.

Reading all these people whom I respect and admire so much debating whether "openness" is good or bad makes me even more certain that fighting concentrated corporate power is the precondition for success in all other goals.

Fighting concentrated corporate power may seem like a tall order, and it is, but in that fight, we have comfort in a key idea from Boyle's own work.

Boyle describes the history of the term "ecology." Before this term was in widespread use, it wasn't clear when two people were engaged in the same struggle. If you care about endangered owls and I care about the ozone layer, are we on the same team?

What do charismatic nocturnal avians have to do with the gaseous composition of the upper atmosphere?

The term "ecology" turns these issues (and a thousand more) into a movement.

Today, there are people of all walks of life living in all kinds of hurt who think their pain is caused by phenomena that are downstream of corporate power. Once we figure that out – once we figure out that to make our tools work again, we need to escape the event horizon of the capitalist singularity – then we can really begin the fight in earnest.

(Image NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, CC BY 2.0 [asserted, more likely public domain], modified)

Hey look at this (permalink)

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Stupid copyright claims? Just ask

#20yrsago 20k-50k WiFi hotspots coming

#20yrsago Karl Auerbach on ICANN’s corruption

#15yrsago SFWA’s farting rainbows tee

#10yrsago Translating plutocrat economic campaign-speak into plain English

#10yrsago Major studios send legal threats to Google demanding removal of links to their own Facebook pages and more

#10yrsago Computer classes should teach regular expressions to kids

#10yrsago UN’s International Telecommunications Union sets out to standardize bulk surveillance of Internet users by oppressive governments

#10yrsago Open, CC-licensed photo course draws up to 35,000 students

#1yrsago When you hear "one size fits all," think "universal": The origins and expansion of a right-wing shibboleth

Colophon (permalink)

Currently writing:

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